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Alicia Blain

Collaboration


Yeah, sounds great BUT we’re not R&D…  I don’t have the luxury of experimenting to see whether or not an idea will fly”  That was the response a corporate colleague of mine gave when I approached him about collaborating on an idea.   It also highlights the last Yeah But of the series – Not my Yob, man.

When it comes down to it, most corporate leaders today are so swamped with their day to day responsibilities that it leaves them little time to do, much less think about, activities that don’t contribute to those specific responsibilities.  They practically freak out when someone approaches them about working on something new.  The response is to always try to get out of it or put the least amount of effort into it.  Their job is to carry out the specific deliverables they committed to delivering this year during the goals setting process.  That’s it & as far as they’re concerned, that’s plenty.

The problem with that type of thinking is that it immediately rules out innovation & experimentation.  New ideas don’t conveniently pop up when you have time on your hands. In fact, I’ve found that they usually manifest themselves when it’s most chaotic, when you are knee deep in a problem & trying to find a solution or a workaround.  Those hectic situations get people focused on thinking creatively for an answer.  The problem is that in the heat of the problem, a lot of the very creative ideas get thrown out because there is no time to put them into action. Instead of holding on to the idea for further investigation, most teams just forget about them. The spark of an idea is allowed to fizzle into obscurity.

Years ago I conducted an experiment as I began to grapple with all 5 Yeah-Buts keeping me from pursuing innovation in my team.  As my team & I were in the throes of solving an issue or finding an answer to a problem, I began to pay attention & look for instances where someone said “I wish we could do xxx” or “Too bad we don’t have time for xxx” or “Does anybody know how to xxx”.  Those phrases carried the spark of a possible great idea.

As I heard these phrases, I began to write them down. Pretty soon I had accumulated a nice list.  Any one of the ideas on the list could potentially lead us to a new product, a new service, a more efficient way of doing things.  The only thing is that we needed to fuel the spark.  That’s what ultimately led to the creation of the Idea Incubator.  With the help of my team, we purposely & purposefully looked at ways we could carve out time to fuel the spark of those ideas.

At first, we could only find small amounts of time & were very selective about the idea (s) we pursued.  What we discovered is that we all really enjoyed that small sliver of time away from the day to day grind to focus on what was possible. That laser focus on the idea gave us incredible momentum & results. Amazingly, one of the results was to really examine our daily activities & where we spent our time.  We all found time wasters in our daily activities. 

But here was the best part.  We quickly acted on eliminating the time wasters.  Why now & not before? Because everyone got a lot of satisfaction from experimenting with the new ideas & helping them take shape.  Everyone was engaged in the process & learning a lot from it.  The goal quickly became to find a way to make the Idea Incubator a part of our daily schedule.  With time, we accomplished that goal & it was a game changer for the team. 

Not all of the ideas we pursued led somewhere but all of them made us learn, challenged our comfort zones & contributed to finding solutions for other ideas.  More importantly, everyone - from Gen Yers to Boomers – was engaged & motivated to come to work.  What I realized as I battled the 5 Yeah-Buts is that I, as the leader of my team, had to find a way to integrate innovation into the daily fabric of the team or else it would never get done.  The reality was that it wasn’t another team’s responsibility to experiment with new ideas.  It was my responsibility as well.

I can’t argue with the fact that completing our day to day activities takes priority if we are to accomplish our annual goals & priorities. But we sacrifice our future if we only focus on the tasks at hand.  Building a framework that allows experimentation  to stand beside the day to day is the key to staying competitive in the future.  Ensuring the company stays innovative & pioneers new ideas is every leaders responsibility & should never be assigned to one department or one function. Our jobs as leaders are to ensure our companies stay competitive,  relevant & financially viable not just today but into the future.

So what about you?  What are you doing today to fight the 5 Yeah-Buts to innovation?  What framework are you building in your team that allows experimentation to thrive alongside the day to day? Remember, it starts with a baby step & it’s up to us to take the first one…

“I’ll have to run that by my senior management”. 

When you hear that, you’ve just heard Yea-But #4:  To seek management approval before the pursuit of an idea.

Really? Seriously?  I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard leaders say that when someone in their team or from the outside pitches an idea he or she thinks is worth pursuing.  Now I can understand if the person is a new or first level manager but these are VPs in charge of multi-million dollar budgets with a team of people reporting to them?  They’ve got to check in with their boss?

When I hear that response I always think to myself  “Why does your boss need you when you have to check in with him for every little thing”.  But usually something else is going on.  The person, let’s just call him or her the VP,  getting pitched the idea is not comfortable with the idea.  Instead of digging deeper & trying to better understand the idea & the intended results, the person just finds it easier to blow off the idea by saying it has to get vetted by the boss. 

The VP is hoping the person pitching the idea will just back off & forget the whole thing so he doesn’t have to even talk to his boss about it.  Most the time he gets his wish.  Everyone knows that getting another management layer involved in a decision will complicate & slow down the process.

That is what the VP is counting on.  He doesn’t care that he looks like an ineffective leader by relinquishing his authority to the higher ups.  He doesn’t care that he may be squashing a great idea from taking root & blossoming to a great product or service for the company.   The nurturing & growth of ideas puts more work on a VPs plate.  It also puts him at risk of failure.  What if the idea is a dud?  What if a lot of time is invested & it goes no where?  What’s going to happen to his bonus & raise then? 

Although admittedly the pursuit of ideas is a toss up in terms of success, it rarely happens in vain.  All is not wasted & in fact usually, a lot is gained.  The team gets to try out different techniques & theories, they learn from what goes right & even more by what goes wrong.  They are engaged in the idea & seeing where it goes.  Engaged employees mean happy employees that are learning & contributing to the company. Experimenting with new ideas raises the bar in their performance because they see what’s truly possible when they try something new, something that pushes them out of their comfort zone.

But none of that can happen if the VP doesn’t choose to get uncomfortable first.  If he cops out & uses the “gotta run it the boss” card, all is lost.  Another idea is not allowed to take root.  How many times does this happen in our existing corporate environment on a daily, weekly, yearly basis?  A lot!  But we don’t even realize it. Yeah-But  #1 – being too busy  is so engrained in the way we work that it’s hard for anything to penetrate it.  Often we push back on new ideas without even thinking about what we’re doing or the consequences.

That resistance keeps innovation from sprouting & weaving its way into the very fabric of the organization.  The day to day grind, the push to meet deliverables & focus on reactive activities never lets innovation shine through.  On the rare occasion that it does, it’s not allowed to flourish by any means.

How many times have you relinquished your authority to your boss to avoid the pursuit of any idea presented by people in or outside of your team?  How many times have you delved deeper to an idea being pitched to you to see if it had any legs?  How many times do you take the easy way out so you don’t have to get uncomfortable?

We are all guilty of passing the buck to our boss to get out of doing something on some occasion.  The problem occurs when we make it a habit & refuse to take ownership & live up to the position & authority we have been given.

 ”Ideas cost money & I don’t have extra money lying around in the budget”

Jim got that response from his boss when he pitched an idea to automate an internal process that was time intensive & manual.  It highlights Yeah-But #2 – no budget for innovation.  Jim was one of my Gen Y interviewees sharing the good, bad & the ugly of  his corporate experience.

“I didn’t even get a chance to give details about my idea.  I was shut down before I even started”  Jim explained. “I didn’t even know if my idea would cost money or not but the answer was loud & clear. Ideas cost money.  But what if they saved money, too?”

Jim continued “At lunch, I told my friend, Neil, in finance, about my idea to see how much he thought it would cost. Neil liked the idea & could see how the solution could be used across the company.  He texted his friend in IT to ask him to meet us & brainstorm possible solutions.  John from IT, revealed that his team had worked on something similiar that could probably be tweaked to solve this issue in my team. We decided to work together & see if we could come up something using the tools the company already had in place.”

Excited about the possibility of pursuing an idea that could save his team a lot of time & money, Jim discovered that his idea it would not cost the company additional funds except for the time Jim, John &  Neil invested in it.   At the end of 2 months, they had automated & tested the new solution & Jim was ready to present the solution to his boss.

“My boss was blown away by the demo I gave him”. Jim explained.  “Even still he asked me 4 times if I was 100% sure this was not going to cost him money to implement.  I assured him the only thing it had cost us was our time & effort. He was skeptical right through the end.  He stopped being skeptical when he saw how much more efficient the team was with the new solution. He stopped when other teams saw the improvement and wanted to piggyback off the solution.  He stopped when the CEO praised him for the solution he almost shut down.

“I guess I was wrong about ideas costing money” Jim’s boss confessed. “They can  make money, too, if you give them a chance to sprout”.

Can you see yourself in Jim’s boss?  How many times have you not pursued an idea because of possible budget concerns? Did you try looking at creative solutions with what was already available in-house?

Sometimes we make things more complicated that they need to be.  The next time you find yourself shutting down an employee with a good idea because of cost implications, try this:

  • Listen to the idea & see if it has bottom line potential.  If it does, it is worth pursuing
  • Encourage the employee to come up with creative solutions if you have no budget to spare for seed money
  • Find ways to partner with other teams that the solution could benefit.  The effort & cost can be distributed among various departments instead of bearing the brunt of the cost yourself.

Don’t be shortsighted like Jim’s boss about trying out new ideas.  Innovation often just requires a creative way of seeing & using the tools, information, people & resources that you have at your disposal. All you need to do is give it a chance to sprout.

“I don’t have time to dilly dally & play around.  My deliverables don’t leave time for anything else”. 

With that comment, Jack, our VP in Finance,  voiced the first Yeah-But to corporate innovation – lack of time.   Ann, the VP of Customer Service, chimed in, ” I agree with Jack.  If you’re not crazy busy, you’re not working on the company’s top priorities”.

“Wanna put your money where your mouth is?”  I asked  “Neither one of you are spending 100% of your time on top priority activities.  In fact, I bet  you are actually wasting a lot of time on non-essential stuff.

“I’ll take the bet. What’s the wager?”.  Ann, you in”?  I knew Jack would take the bait.

“What are we wagering? ” she said as they both looked at me.

“Ok, for the next month, you & Jack have to track all work activities in your day. Down to the minutes & hours spent on even the most trivial stuff. You need to be completely honest & methodical in capturing all the details. Deal”?

“Yeah, But (there it is again!) what’s the wager?  Jack asked.

“At the end of the month, if you don’t find at least 20% of your time is wasted on non-essential stuff, I will put you at the top of the list for the new IBM laptops we’re rolling out .

If, on the other hand, you find that 20% of your time is being wasted then you assign someone from your teams to work on an idea we’re testing out in my team”  Do we have a deal”?

Jack & Ann practically said “I’m in” at the same time.  

“Great. Let’s touch base after 2 weeks to check our progress”?  I asked.

“Good idea.  I can’t wait to be the first show off my new laptop “.  Jack was smiling.

The day before our lunch, Jack & Ann walk into my office.  “Jack says, ” Carla will work on your project”.  Then Ann says ” Bill will represent my team.  Just let me know how long you need him”.

The shock registerd on my face.

“You won”, said Jack.  “I never thought we’d lose but what I discovered almost makes losing worth it”. 

“Me,too” added Ann. “I kept a detailed log of everything I did & last Friday I reviewed it. What struck me were the useless meetings I was attending. Either the meetings had no bearing on my deliverables or, they were better suited for my direct reports.  This week I decided to be selective in the meetings I attended.  I freed more than 20% of my time.

“For me, the time wasters were the interruptions in my day”.  Jack was sharing his discovery. ”People stop by and chat.  Five minutes here, ten minutes there, it adds up.  Early this week, I moved to a conference room where people couldn’t easily find me. I was more focused & productive. Between the meetings & the interruptions, I wasted way more than 20% of my time on stupid stuff”.

Ann’s next comment was the best.  “I realized that there is time to try new things. You just have to want to do it & you find the time.”

Can you relate to Jack & Ann’s discovery?  Are you really so busy you can’t try new things or do you just think you are?  How open are you to test yourself? 

Try a quick experiment.  For the next 2 weeks:

  • Keep a log of all activities during your working day.
  • Be honest & make sure you capture ALL activities.
  • At the end of the first week, review your entries & evaluate your findings. 

If you find you are not as productive as you thought,  you have 2 choices. You can re-direct the  time to your priority projects or use the time to try a new idea or new way of doing things in your team.  Remember what Ann said: There is time for innovation.  You have to want to do it & you’ll find the time.

Here’s a great quote to help keep this innovation Yeah-But at bay: 

The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” – Michael Altshuler    Source: www.TimeMan.com